Though born in Oklahoma City, where the eastern U.S. mingles with the West, I grew up in the Deep South of upstate South Carolina. Alternately romanticized or gothicized, this region evokes images of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, fragrant camellias, colorful azaleas, and sandy, piney woods. Many of the romantic, quintessentially Southern plants are imports from Japan or China, but nevertheless they rekindle childhood memories whenever I see or smell them.
Summer was white Queen Anne’s lace along rural highways; orange tiger lilies growing wild in the Smoky Mountains; pine trees with blocks of bark you could pick off and chew, and sticky sap that got all over your hands and feet when you climbed high for a view; yellow-and-white honeysuckle flowers you pulled apart, your tongue stuck out for the drop of nectar; and the low, spreading branches of Southern magnolias, good for hiding under, the broad, glossy leaves concealing your hiding spot, the huge, creamy-white, fragrant flowers making it time well spent.
Fall was reddening pyracantha berries, good for throwing at one’s sister but watch out for those thorns; blazing orange and red leaves accumulating in drifts, begging to be kicked in the air or jumped into; and pine and fir cones that pricked your bare feet if you didn’t watch your step, but also were fun to collect in piles, I can’t remember what for.
Winter was sasanqua camellias, a towering, evergreen row along the back fence, with dark-pink and white blossoms we’d pick, place on magnolia leaves, and set sail in the shallow water on the swimming-pool cover; green pine needles above and slippery, brown needles underfoot; and the bare branches of oaks and maples.
Spring was pink cherry blossoms on weeping branches outside my bedroom window, sometimes covered with snow from a surprise, early-spring snowfall; fuchsia, freckled, azalea blossoms shaped like bells; blazing yellow forsythia; fresh green leaves budding on trees; and worm-like oak pollen catkins littering the ground.
Now that I have children of my own, I wonder what plants will trigger their strongest childhood memories when they are grown, living perhaps far away and gardening with plants unfamiliar to them from their youth, as I do now. Perhaps coral honeysuckle, which they pull apart for nectar as I once did. Immature green plums plucked from the Mexican plum tree, good for tempting fairies with. Grassy stems of bamboo muhly with which to tickle someone’s toes. Silvery, feathery artemesia, crushed between small fingers for the wonderful smell. Sharp spines of agaves that’ll puncture an inflatable ball if you’re not careful.
I’ve been gardening here in Austin for 13 years, time enough to adjust my idea of when spring arrives and what it looks like. Hot spring colors and spiny “leaves” are normal to me now. My garden, like Austin, mixes west with east, leaning perhaps more heavily on the West. Old roses nod over spiny prickly pear pads. Irises mingle with native perennials like zexmenia and damianita. Old South star jasmine (aka Confederate jasmine) twines up my vine gate next to Mexican gallinita. It works for me.
Spring color in my Texas garden: gold zexmenia, purple iris, and red Texas betony
More of the same
New pads budding on spineless prickly pear, with agarita leaves in the foreground
Red pomegranate flower buds
The vine gate with star jasmine blooming on the right, gallinita growing on the left side. Texas betony sprawls in the foreground, ‘Blue Elf’ aloe in the blue pot has just finished flowering, and ‘Valentine’ rose blooms in front of a huge African iris.